EDUCATING ADLAND: In his new role as the president of the IPA, WCRS's chief executive, Stephen Woodford, is a man with a mission

By John Tylee, campaignlive.co.uk, Thursday, 17 April 2003 12:00AM

In his new role as the president of the IPA, WCRS's chief executive, Stephen Woodford, is a man with a mission - to teach people employed in the ad industry to see the bigger picture. John Tylee reports.

In his fifth-floor office with its commanding view across the Soho skyline and down to the Golden Square green sward, Stephen Woodford is lamenting the fact that so many of those working in Britain's agencies don't get shown the big picture anymore.

A somewhat ironic observation, perhaps, given the lofty eerie of the WCRS chief executive. Yet he sees evidence of his claim everywhere he looks - in the creative shops that have become decoupled from their media counterparts, in the junior staff forced to spend their apprenticeships as dogsbodies and in creative departments, where teams too often produce creative treatments that history proves won't work.

And he supports his assertion with memories of his own entry into the business via Lintas two decades ago, having begun his career as an assistant brand manager at Nestle.

"Actually, I was a rubbish account manager because I knew almost nothing about the end process," he recalls. "Because I'd been a graduate and had done a marketing job there was an assumption I could do all this stuff. I had to make my mistakes and play catch-up."

Today, Woodford's wide range of contacts across the business coupled with an easy charm suggest lessons well learned. It also helps explain why he has borrowed Tony Blair's mantra of "Education, education, education" as the rallying cry for his upcoming two-year presidency of the IPA.

Indeed, almost all he has to say about the industry's current and future state seems to be linked to what he perceives as the crucial importance of a well-qualified and knowledgeable workforce.

He even suggests that the industry's ongoing failure to reflect more accurately Britain's racial mix is owing in no small part to the lack of professional qualifications on offer. In qualification-driven Asian communities, in particular, advertising is shunned by the brightest children who are steered towards the law, medicine or banking, he points out.

According to Bruce Haines, the Leo Burnett chief executive and his predecessor in the IPA job, Woodford is a man to whom it's very difficult to say no.

That may turn out to be a valuable attribute as he sets out to persuade fellow agency chiefs, for whom time and commercial pressures are relentless, to back the establishment of an advertising foundation course with which he has linked his presidency. "I think we could do better to prepare people of all disciplines for a lifelong career in the business," he says.

Woodford's plan is for a low-cost and largely online training programme.

It would give all industry newcomers, whether suits or creatives, irrespective of the type of agency that employs them, from above the line to media, direct marketing and digital, a basic knowledge of how communication in all its forms builds brands.

In establishing such a programme, Woodford is effectively turning the clock back to the 70s when the IPA ran the CAM courses. In those days, agency tyros trooped along to lectures at the College of Distributive Trades in London's Leicester Square.

In the end, though, worries about the quality of the teaching and concern about the relevance of the courses to the ad business led the IPA to sever its links with CAM.

Despite the passionate advocacy for CAM by Archie Pitcher, the former Ogilvy & Mather president, at the IPA council, the trade body couldn't be persuaded to change its mind.

The Woodford initiative won't try to replicate the IPA's seven-stage programme whose foundations were laid by its former director of studies, the late Charles Channon, and which catered for agency staffers from the relatively junior to the most senior. Instead, it will build on its continuous professional development scheme in which 4,700 people from 75 IPA member agencies now participate.

The intention is for a two-part scheme. The first is an induction course for all newcomers in IPA member shops, which is scheduled to start at the end of this year. The second is a diploma course for more experienced staffers with director potential. Woodford is hopeful the second stage will be a reality by the time his presidency ends in April 2005.

The idea is to avoid specialism and concentrate on providing participants with an overview. "This isn't about teaching the necessary skills to enable you to write a brief or sell a media plan," Woodford explains. "It's about making sure you understand how the business works."

In essence, Woodford wants to systematise the way the industry passes on its knowledge from one generation to the next and to exploit what he says is the IPA's extensive treasure trove of data on ad campaigns of proven effectiveness.

That's likely to be reflected in a required reading list for those taking part in the course. Books such as Leslie Butterfield's Advalue, praised for making complex industry issues understandable, will almost certainly figure on it.

In short, it's all about showing the big picture to those in danger of getting only a blinkered view of an industry that has become fragmented into specialisms and is a far cry from Woodford's early years in adland when full service was the norm.

Under Haines, the IPA initiated the aptly named Project Jericho, which has set out to demolish the walls between the creative and media parts of the business and Woodford clearly intends that his foundation course should accelerate the process.

"Here at WCRS, we have terrific relationships with the media independents with which we work," he says. "But it isn't like the day-in-day-out relationships we used to enjoy when we sat cheek-by-jowl with media people. In developing our specialist skills, we've lost sight of that big picture. In my experience, creative agencies are no longer as involved in how much a client is spending or where the spend is going."

By launching its induction course, the IPA shows its unique role within the industry, Woodford believes. "Only the IPA could do it. Even a large communications group would find it hard to justify such an investment on its own."

Nevertheless, he may need all his persuasive powers to win universal approval of the course throughout an industry he believes has become preoccupied in getting the ads out rather than addressing the issue of advertising's role in business.

Giving students the opportunity to work online should help keep costs low and flexibility high. What's more, "off- the-shelf" learning packages on to which IPA courses can be loaded should help keep the financial outlay to a minimum.

It ought to be a "no brainer" and Woodford claims not to have heard a single dissenting voice about it. The danger is that the short-term thinking provoked by the recession in many agencies has pushed training to the bottom of the agenda.

Certainly, he is going in to bat for a business still collectively insecure and yet to regain the self-confidence that a steep growth period followed by dramatic decline has produced.

It's not that clients aren't spending. Indeed, Nielsen Media Research's top 100 brands raised their adspends by 12 per cent last year. Jobless figures dropped and agency job losses, although painful, were relatively modest.

So what's everybody so worried about? Well for one thing, agency fees haven't kept pace with client spends, Woodford argues. For another, there's the readjustment to a world of low inflation. This prevents agencies passing on extra costs to their clients who, because of over-capacity and intensified competition, can't recoup such costs from their own customers.

However, Woodford doesn't share the popular belief that agencies as currently structured aren't geared to meet the demands of today's clients.

Sure, innovative and trail-blazing agencies such as Mother do change the industry over time, just as HHCL & Partners did a decade earlier, he argues. But hotshops and agency powerhouses have more in common than divides them. Both bring business, strategic and creative skills to bear on a client's problem.

"That's the magic agencies have over other businesses and consultancies. They can think and they can do," he declares. "The basic agency model has been remarkably resilient."

As far as creative departments are concerned, though, he acknowledges that there's work still to be done. Too little training and an almost non-existent appraisal system is creating an environment that's too Darwinian for a modern business, Woodford suggests.

Haines spent his presidency putting creativity at the heart of IPA activity.

Now his successor sees a better qualified creative workforce as a means of aiding that process. "I want to see creative people better trained in their craft," he says. "At the moment, there's too much of a sink-or-swim approach, which is limiting and causes too much mimicking of the creative style of the day."

On the IPA's other big issues, Woodford balances cautiousness with a desire for action. The IPA entered a political minefield last year when it floated the idea of a "supergroup" to act as the single voice of the communications industry.

For the moment this grand design has got no further than the formation of the Communications Agencies Federation, allowing the IPA and two other trade bodies to pursue issues of com-mon interest.

So is the "supergroup" idea dead? "It's still possible and it's good that the IPA has taken the lead in the debate," Woodford answers. "But the process has to be evolutionary. It can't be forced."

He's less laid-back on the topic of the industry's attitude to ethnic minorities. Woodford has been leading the IPA's project on what the industry can do to improve its record. This is due to culminate in June, when the IPA's guide to ethnic marketing goes online.

He's anxious this shouldn't be interpreted as token political correctness.

Rather it should be seen, he says, as a valuable source of help to agencies and clients to communicate profitably with the large ethnic communities now established in many of Britain's urban conurbations. There's also the tricky issue of balancing the need to have more people from ethnic groups represented in mainstream advertising while being sensitive to cultural differences.

At the same time, Woodford wants to demolish perceptions of agencies as white middle-class bastions choc-a-block with Oxbridge types and unwelcoming of any would-be recruits from ethnic backgrounds.

"Talking to people from ethnic minorities who currently work in advertising shows that the business is about as open as it's possible to be to anyone, whatever their background," he claims.

It's pure Catch 22, of course. No ethnic role models within agencies so nobody from an ethnic minority bothers to apply for a job. Which is why there's no ethnic role models. Can the cycle be broken? Maybe not until more people see the big picture.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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